Fifteen years later, Gemma was standing at the helm of the the Mystic Reed. The sun lit up a bright blue mid-day sky. The saltwater sprayed her glasses with every dip of the bow. After years of sailing the open ocean, she found it refreshing. Milo, being a land mammal in both nature and disposition, found it annoying. He had resigned himself to the squawks of seagulls, the smell of barnacles, and the fact that every single thing on their boat was constantly wet. But, the saltwater stung his nostrils, and that ruffled him the wrong way. He had no choice, though, on such an important mission, but to brave the onslaught from atop Gemma’s shoulder and help with their search.
Gemma peered forward over the right side of the boat, which is called the starboard, as her uncle had taught her soon after her parents left. Then she peered over the left side of the boat, which is called the port. She always remembered which was which by reminding herself that ‘left’ and ‘port’ have the exact same number of letters. ‘Starboard’ and ‘right’ have an extraordinarily different number of letters, and therefore were not a part of her memorizing technique.
“I don’t see anything, Milo,” she said with a frown, wiping her glasses clean. They were speckled with saltwater again by the time she spoke again.
“That sea merchant told us the Forgotten Island would be right here!” she exclaimed.
Milo wrapped his tail around her neck and slid it down to point to the dark blue compass still hanging around her neck, slightly rusted, but otherwise intact. She opened up the cover and tapped the glass. There was a jagged silver needle laying lifeless inside, just as it always did.
Gemma looked down and sighed. “You know that thing doesn’t work. It can’t tell East from West or up from down. I need to remember exactly what that merchant said.” She began to mumble. “Across the Mossy Channel, due south of Heart Mountain, three days onward… oh what’s the use!”
Milo leapt onto the steering wheel as Gemma walked back to the stern of the boat and looked out across the water. “It’s called the Forgotten Island for a reason. It’s lost to the world!”
Her hand instinctively gripped the railing as the boat shook and shimmied. It slowed to a stop within seconds. She spun her head around to see Milo with his hands and tail in the air. This was often his pose when he wanted to make it clear that what had happened was not his fault. It was almost just as often the case that it was.
Gemma looked over the side rail again and saw a dark patch of land that hadn’t been there at last glance. It was a small oval island. They had run aground.
Milo hopped down from the steering wheel and swung over the side of the boat. Gemma’s feet found the wooden rungs on the Jacob’s ladder and stepped down to the thin shoreline.
She bent and grabbed a handful of sand. It was blue. A deep blue. And dark green as well. Mixed together, it was the exact color of the ocean.
“Remarkable,” she said, looking around. “This must be the Forgotten Island, Milo.”
Less impressed, Milo grabbed a fallen coconut from the ground and started pounding it on a nearby stone. The coconut tree it came from was one of only three trees on the island. The second was a slightly larger coconut tree with equal or better quality and sized coconuts. The third was significantly smaller than the first two, did not grow any coconuts, and was not a coconut tree. Apart from the trees, Gemma spotted a simple hut, with a frond-thatched roof, covered on all sides by vines. Next to it was the entrance to a small cave, handmade from brown stones.
Milo struck a victorious blow, splitting the coconut in two. He drank the water inside greedily then offered Gemma the other half as a snack.
“Thanks anyway, Milo,” she said. “I’d rather go check out that hut.”
Gemma couldn’t help staring into the dark mouth of the cave as she pushed in the hut’s door. It dislodged from the frame in a sloppy commotion and fell to the floor.
“Sorry…” Gemma said to no one at all as they stepped on top and entered. She had decided long ago that manners are manners whether someone is there to see them or not.
Milo finished the coconut meat and threw his shell onto the hut floor. He had decided long ago that he was a lemur and, therefore, manners did not apply.
Gemma spotted two windows and tore down the faded green vines covering them. The sunlight burst in to reveal a metal pot, suspended over a compact fire pit. She bent down and held her hands close to the wooden embers.
“It’s still warm,” she said with a suspicious tone. “Someone was here recently.” They looked around to confirm that despite the discovery, they were alone inside the hut. Milo picked his coconut shell up again and placed it on top of his head, just to be safe. Behind the pit there was a small circular table with a dusty chair pulled out. It looked to Gemma as though the seat had been dusted off by a large hand. A quick lap around the room uncovered an empty tin box and a set of clay bowls, but nothing more exciting. Gemma walked to the nearest window and stared out.
“Should’ve known that sea merchant was a liar. There’s nothing valuable here. We got hornswoggled, Milo.”
Milo looked up at her indignantly.
“Okay,” she conceded, “I got hornswoggled.”
Three weeks earlier Gemma sat at a lonely table in the shadows of Starlight Tavern, with Milo by her side. She didn’t enjoy the loud bard music or unruly patrons, but it was the best place in Harbortown to conduct the shady administrative business that came along with treasure hunting. That is to say, it was the only place that allowed the kind of people she needed to meet. Across from her sat one of those very people, known to her only as the sea merchant. He was a handsome mustachioed man with a tricorn hat, and at that moment, he had her rapt attention.
“It’s up to you,” he said with a smile and a sip of his drink. He had a smooth way of talking that made even the saltiest words come out sweet. Gemma didn’t trust him one bit. She took his words with a grain of regular-colored sand, but she was listening.
Milo stared at the merchant with the fierce protective glare that only a true friend possesses. Unbeknownst to Gemma, it had been two minute since he last blinked.
“And how do I know I can trust you?” she asked with an eyebrow raised.
The sea merchant laughed. “You don’t, friend.”
Gemma studied his smile. The lines next to his eyes. The piece of corn stuck to his teeth that, had he been a true friend, she would have mentioned to him as a courtesy.
“The price. It’s a bit steep,” she replied.
“That it is,” said the sea merchant, taking another sip. “But, this is no ordinary bounty. Through great peril I came to find it. It’s not everyday someone offers you ‘the most greatest treasure in the world’.”
Gemma’s face twisted.
“‘The most greatest treasure in the world?’ I’ve heard those words before…”
The sea merchant slammed his drink down.
“Aye, many have heard of it. None have found it.” He leaned in closer. “But I know the way.”
Gemma gave a coy smirk. “If you know the way then why don’t you go get it yourself. Surely it’s worth more than you’re asking.”
“’Tis not in the stars for me, friend. No, I’ll just stay here, safe and sound.” He reached out an open palm. “And count my coins.”
She sighed. It was the best lead she had gotten in months and, despite her concerns, she couldn’t turn it down. Besides, she was desperate for adventure, and if what the merchant said was even half true, it would be the stuff of legends.
Gemma looked to Milo and gave a nod. Without breaking his stare, Milo used his tail to lift up a pouch of coins and drop it on the table. Milo was the only lemur Gemma had ever met who had a prehensile tail, capable of gripping things, and it never ceased to amaze her. The sea merchant snatched the pouch up before the sound even hit Gemma’s ears. He took off his hat, leaned in close to cover the sides of their faces from a busy tavern, and whispered the instructions. The first rivers and channels and landmarks he mentioned were familiar, but the rest were completely foreign to her. She listened more carefully than she ever had before, repeating the words back to herself.
When he was finished, Gemma turned to Milo and gave another quick nod.
“Well, I guess that all we need to know,” she said, turning back to the sea merchant. “Thanks for…”
But the sea merchant was nowhere to be seen. Only his hat remained. Gemma and Milo were genuinely impressed by the mystique of it for a few seconds. Until they heard, “You’re welcome,” from underneath the table. The sea merchant’s hand reached up and grabbed the hat, since it was a high-quality hat, and not the kind you would leave behind for the sake of mystique.
Back inside the hut, Gemma looked out the window and sighed.
“I guess there were some red flags,” she said. Her eyes settled on the rock cave outside.
“Come on, Milo. We might as well check every nook and cranny,” she said with a shrug.
Milo squeaked as they stomped over the fallen door.
“A cranny. It’s basically the same thing as a nook,” she responded.
As Gemma and Milo walked inside the cave they carried some of the island’s blue sand with them. The entrance sloped down on a path of dark brown dirt that went on longer than either of them expected. When they reached the interior, the mid-day sun was almost completely blocked. Gemma felt around the cold walls and found a sconce holding a torch.
“Milo, flint me,” she said.
Milo reached inside the small pouch at his side and pulled out a flint stone, used for sparking flames. Swiftly, he tossed it past her open hand and hit her in the forehead. They had gotten good at starting cozy fires, but hadn’t yet perfected the handoff. In a dark cave and without any practice throws, they had almost no chance.
Gemma lit the torch and uncovered a cave of deep red stone. The flame created shadows that danced over the nooks in the side of the cave. They danced over crannies as well which, it’s worth noting, are actually an entirely different thing than nooks. What drew both of their attention, as soon as they saw it, was a wooden chest in the center. As they walked forward, its gold trim and lock shimmered in the light.
With each approaching step, Gemma noticed a peculiar thing start to happen. From around her neck, the compass began to shake. She stopped to raise it over her head and open the top. The jagged silver needle was vibrating loudly. Testing a theory, she took a step forward and the rattle increased until it filled the room.
“It’s… it’s never done this before,” she said. Milo looked up at her with wide yellow eyes. “Why would it shake now? It doesn’t even work.” Gemma carefully opened up the glass cover and grasped the needle to stop the shaking. “It’s almost like it’s not a compass at all…” She lifted her hand up and, to her surprise, removed the needle with ease.
Milo scuttled over to the lock and examined it. Excitedly, he jumped up and down. Gemma felt as though she understood what he meant. Through years of being best friends, they had developed their own kind of language, and she was rarely wrong.
“You want me to bake you a muffin, Milo?” Rarely wrong, but sometimes.
Milo scoffed and pointed at the lock.
“Ohhhh, use the needle on the lock,” she said. “Well, it looked a whole lot like your muffin dance.”
Gemma bent down and lined the needle up to the keyhole to find it was roughly the same size. With the torch in one hand, flickering wildly around the cave, she pressed the twisted needle into the lock.
“Here goes something,” she whispered.
Slowly, she turned the needle until she felt a click. The top to the chest popped open with ease. Gemma tapped her shoulder and Milo climbed up to see. She raised the torch and stared down. Inside, she saw her own face and Milo’s, distorted by a blanket of ripples. It was water. Dark ancient, water. And in the center, floating with a calmness, was a tiny boat.
Gemma had less than a moment to study it before she heard a familiar sound. One she had not heard for many years. It was the jingle of her old favorite bell.
“Oh, Bramblerot,” she said.